I love reading Andrew Wilson. He’s a winsome, articulate apologist for Christianity whose book, If God, Then What? presents Christian truth in memorable and disarming ways. His newest book tackles the question of biblical authority. Why should we believe the Bible? “Because Jesus did,” Andrew replies.
Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said about the Word of God is a brief, accessible introduction to the nature of Scripture. You can read the book in one sitting, but don’t let its brevity fool you. This is a book that makes a compelling case for biblical authority by bringing us back to Jesus over and over again.
Today, Andrew joins me on the blog to discuss biblical authority and interpretation.
Trevin Wax: Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to the Bible and how conservative evangelicals are mistaken to rely on Scriptural inspiration and are mistaken in their interpretations. How would Jesus’ view of the Old Testament be different than the Newsweek article’s?
Andrew Wilson: Ah, Newsweek. What a strange article that was! There have been a number of good pieces debunking much of it, so I won’t get into too many details here, but I think it would be fair to say that Jesus had a rather different view of the Old Testament to that of Eichenwald, if the historical record is to be believed.
According to Newsweek, the mere process of scribal copying makes it impossible to know what the original said; Jesus was quite happy to affirm that the text He was reading was what (say) Isaiah wrote, and represented the word of God. (A comparison of the Masoretic Text and the Qumran Scrolls shows that Jesus, not Eichenwald, was right about the levels of scribal accuracy.)
For Newsweek, Moses had very little to do with the writing of the Pentateuch; for Jesus, Moses’ influence on the Pentateuch was so large that He could simply quote it with “Moses says …”.
For Newsweek, finding salvation in Christ means abandoning everything in Leviticus; for Jesus, it means not abandoning it, but fulfilling it.
Newsweek emphasises the humanness of Scripture and affirms that it is riddled with contradictions and errors; Jesus emphasizes that it was written by humans inspired by God – “David, by the Spirit, said …” – and affirms that it cannot be broken. And so on.
Having said all that, Jesus might well agree with the heart of Eichenwald’s piece: that His followers should spend more time studying the Scriptures, and less time showing off their spirituality in public!
Trevin Wax: A common line of thinking today is that the Bible is inspired and authoritative but we can’t be sure what it really says because there are so many divergent and competing interpretations. But you believe the Bible is inspired, authoritative, and clear. What case do you make for its coherence and clarity?
Andrew Wilson: If the Bible says something, and we disagree about what it means, that could be for one of two reasons. It could be because the Bible is at fault, or it could be because we are at fault.
I think there are two reasons for preferring the latter: firstly, because we should probably leave the benefit of the doubt with the Word of God rather than the interpretations of men, and secondly, because there are numerous misunderstandings in the Gospels, and Jesus appears to hold the disciples accountable for every one of them:
- Are you still so dull?
- Do you still not understand?
- How can you not see that …?
- How slow you are to believe!
- Seeing their hypocrisy, He said …
- You don’t know what you’re saying.
- Get behind me, Satan!
And so it goes on. For Jesus, misunderstandings of Scripture come about because humans are muddled, rather than because the Bible is. Fallen humans blaming the word of God for our confusion is like a bunch of drunks getting lost in broad daylight, and then complaining that the sun isn’t shining brightly enough.
Trevin Wax: You say your starting point is Jesus Christ. “I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus.” But where else but the Bible do we learn about Jesus’ treatment of the Bible’s trustworthiness? In other words, don’t we have to accept the basic tenets of the Bible’s portrait of Jesus before we can say we see the Bible the way Jesus did?
Andrew Wilson: Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the best historical records we have about Jesus are all part of what we now call the New Testament. But no, in the sense that we don’t have to assume the truthfulness of the whole Bible in order to believe that Jesus regarded the Scriptures that way.
There’s a historical point here: we have quite a lot of second-temple Jewish sources, and although they differ in their interpretations of (say) the Torah, none of them say anything remotely like, “Well yes, the Torah said that then, but that’s a load of rubbish, so we’re now going to do this.” To my knowledge, nobody has made a scholarly case that Jesus, as a first century Jew, thought the Scriptures were full of mistakes (even if they think His readings of the texts were hugely controversial). A first century Jew who didn’t think the Old Testament was true would be like a twenty first century American who didn’t believe gravity was true: possible, but very, very unlikely.
Trevin Wax: You say that the Bible is mainly about Jesus and God’s purpose for the nations. What goes wrong when we don’t have Jesus and God’s purpose at the center of our Bible interpretation?
Andrew Wilson: Lots of things.
Individualism: I can believe it’s about me, rather than about Him and then us (so the David and Goliath story becomes about how I can slay my giants, rather than about how Israel slew theirs, and how Jesus, the true David, slays His).
Confusion: lots of the muddle in Kurt Eichenwald’s Newsweek piece came from failing to see how the story develops, and how (say) Leviticus is fulfilled in Christ.
Pride: I become the main focus of the Psalms, or Luke, or Romans, rather than God.
Greed: I assume that the blessings being spoken of throughout the Bible have their end in me, and my enjoyment, rather than in the purposes of God for the nations (which is where a lot of prosperity theology goes wrong, I think).
Emptiness: I never hear a story that shows me where my life fits in God’s massive plan for the world.
I’m sure there are others, too.
Trevin Wax: How would you encourage Christians who have doubts about the Bible’s trustworthiness and relevance, particularly on hot button issues of marriage, divorce, sexuality, etc.?
Andrew Wilson: I think it would depend why they had doubts. In my experience, lots of Christians from evangelicals are worried about what the Bible says about sexual ethics, not because they’ve come across a problem with the text (like “Jesus never said this” or “Paul never meant that”), but because they know people for whom what the Bible says can be painful. If that’s the problem, then no amount of exegetical or historical argument is likely to help; the issue is much more about the cost of discipleship (which is what I usually talk about on this one – following Jesus is a death to self, a life of tribulation and difficulty and persecution, which will sometimes mean loved ones abandoning or attacking you).
But if they’ve got doubts about whether Scripture can be trusted at all, whether for scholarly or more popular reasons, then I want to do roughly what I do in Unbreakable: talk about how Jesus regarded the Scriptures, and encourage people to imitate his example. A recent example of that sort of discussion is this exchange of articles I had with Brian McLaren here and here.